Cascade County Elections Official sees smoother elections process, some attribute to monitor
GREAT FALLS – A $1.5 million mill levy critical for the Great Falls Public Library passed Tuesday night in an election overseen with help from an elections monitor appointed by the court.
The Elections Office released the 7,223—6,604 result, unofficial until provisional ballots are counted and canvassed.
Election judges and poll watchers working at the Montana ExpoPark report the process went smoother than the May 2 election, the first election for newly appointed Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant. That election saw delays in results and a lawsuit filed alleging Merchant mishandled two district elections and requesting she redo them.
One of the differences this week was the presence of a court-appointed elections monitor, Lynn DeRoche, requested by the library board.
Poll watcher Nancy Anderson attributed some of the course correction to the presence of DeRoche, who worked in the Elections Office more than 16 years with previous longtime Clerk Rina Moore, who was also present Tuesday as a poll watcher.
“It’s smoother in some aspects because the ballots fit in the envelopes,” Anderson told the Daily Montanan with a chuckle, referencing one of the issues that plagued the May 2 election. “There are still some issues with people getting ballots that are not theirs.”
This year, national issues have come to bear in Cascade County elections.
Merchant, a known election denier and businesswoman who did not have experience running elections before taking office in January, created confusion early on about her plan for running a school board election, and her office misstepped in May in ways that prompted an irrigation district to describe the election as “atrocious,” “a complete failure.”
The challenges prompted the Great Falls Library Board, anticipating its own June 6 election in advance of the start of a new financial year on July 1, to request the court appoint the monitor; the timeframe allowed little room for error. Observers reported improvements this week, but even though the levy passed, the library also faces cultural headwinds as some voters question whether it should do more to weed out controversial material.
Merchant said Tuesday that the experience in the new role has been a “whirlwind.” She said one of the differences between elections was that she had staff for this election, which she said she didn’t have last election.
“It’s been much better this time,” she told media.
Attorney for the Great Falls Library Board Raph Graybill said in an interview Wednesday it’s too early to say with the canvass left to complete and with the monitor’s last report still pending, but Plaintiffs are “cautiously optimistic.”
He said issues that occurred during the May 2 election, like voters getting turned away from the polls, the wrong set of people getting ballots, and signature verification hiccups, didn’t seem to take place this time around.
“I think that the court’s involvement in the monitor’s involvement has been productive,” he said. “The library’s only goal is for Sandra Merchant to succeed. And if she succeeds, it means that there’s a fair, transparent, valid election, and I think cautiously, this election appears to have to have gone well.”
In March, Merchant announced she would be conducting a hybrid poll and absentee ballot library levy election, citing issues following the closure of a local ballot sorting company.
The vast majority of voters submitted absentee ballots for the election, with Jane Weber, a former county commissioner, poll watcher and leader in the recently formed Election Protection Committee, estimating a little more than 300 voters came in to vote at the polls Tuesday.
Weber noted some inconsistencies at the polling location. For example, a board that handles election irregularities, “like if someone tore their ballot, spilled coffee on their ballot,” was kept behind a curtain out of public view, when typically it’s on display.
“Anything irregular on the ballot or with the ballot, the count board then determines what to do with it,” Weber said. “(The ballot) goes to this count board, and they review it, and then they will manually count those votes separately.”
Merchant said she shielded the board because the vote count started before the polls closed, which Moore said was not a legal requirement.
Weber also said poll watchers who were supporters of Merchant’s were taking more time monitoring other poll watchers than watching the process. Merchant said she had to correct “both sides” and said people are there to make sure everybody is following the rules.
A library at a crossroads, with libraries in crossfire
The library was asking the community for funds – $1.5 million, an estimated extra $4 for the average taxpayer a month, according to Molly Beck of the “Vote Yes” campaign. The request came at a time when libraries are at the center of national talking points around stocking obscene material, some of which found its way into Great Falls election.
The group Liberty and Values MT took aim at the levy, with a billboard in town and a Facebook page with a banner in all caps that reads “NO PORNOGRAPHY, NO DRAG QUEENS, NO TAX INCREASE.”
“The Great Falls Library must IMMEDIATELY SUSPEND the distribution of sexually explicit and pornographic material to children and underage youth without parental consent,” the banner read, although the library director said the library has no obscenity or pornography.
The rhetoric follows a legislative session that saw similar language and bills signed into law like a ban on drag queen story hours in schools and libraries as well as a ban on distributing “obscene materials” to children, which targeted books like “Gender Queer.”
Library Director Susie McIntyre said in an interview Wednesday that the library has never had a drag queen story hour, but a video was posted to its Youtube page for Pride featuring a local drag queen, part of the local “Mister Sisters” drag troupe, reading a book for young kids. McIntrye said the video wasn’t filmed in the library.
“We celebrated Fourth of July and Black Heritage Month and Indigenous Peoples Month and we celebrated Pride,” she said. “The library believes in celebrating all parts of our community.”
McIntyre said with the passage of the drag ban, the library was unsure if the video would have been considered a violation of the law, so they decided to make it private.
“You get to choose what you want to read. I get to choose what I want to read. And we believe it is the parent’s right to decide what their child should read,” she said.
She said if library goers have concerns about a specific book, they can go through a process called a “request for reconsideration.” She said staff would be more than happy to help them.
“I firmly believe there’s no obscenity or no pornography in the library,” she said. “I understand that there is a national conversation where there appears to be that libraries are becoming a flashpoint in a culture war and that deeply saddens me.”
A monitor. An in-person election. But for how much money?
McIntyre said she hasn’t received the bill for the election, which she said would be paid for through reserve funds.
Brian Patrick with the Great Falls Public School District said in an email Wednesday they have yet to receive a bill for their May 2 election.
“(Merchant) indicated that she is waiting to receive her outstanding bills for the election before billing the school district,” Patrick said of communications between Merchant and Superintendent Tom Moore.
The court has yet to determine how DeRoche will be compensated for her time as monitor.
The next election on the docket in Great Falls will be the mayoral, city commission and neighborhood council races, as well as a public safety levy and the public safety general obligation bond this fall.
Mayor Bob Kelly, who is not seeking re-election, told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday he didn’t believe the city would be requesting a monitor for the election, and he doesn’t believe it’s his decision.
“I think we want to operate in good faith and letting Ms. Merchant do her job,” he said
He said if the city sees any indication of similar issues that plagued the school board or library, it will certainly ask questions.
“But I think it would be premature to expect us to request a monitor at this point,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Molly Beck’s first name.